Interview: Dick Pope – Cinematographer of ‘Mr Turner’



Dick Pope, has worked man and boy in the film industry.  He first became interested in photography when his father gave him a Brownie camera. Later he became a trainee with Pathe Laboratory and forged a career on B-movies and worked many years as a documentary cameraman before moving into drama. In fact it was his documentary work which brought him to the attention of Mike Leigh with whom he has collaborated many times, initially on Topsy-Turvy. Their most recent collaboration, Mr. Turner, is a biography of the eccentric artist, genius J.M.W. Turner, commonly known as ‘the painter of light’. Pope talked to Paul Farren about his approach to filmmaking and finding the look and feel of Mr. Turner.


I see that you started your career as a documentary cameraman.

One of the things Mike Leigh liked about the work I’d done before was the documentary aspect of it, because his films are very observational and docs allow you to be pretty fluid and flexible in what you do, the lighting is always source-driven. That real experience interested him more than the drama I’d done before. He saw that as being an attribute, in terms of lighting and operating yourself. I’ve always operated the films with Mike and through my background it’s always intuitive with Mike. I’ve always had very strong views on how the camera should or shouldn’t move and composition. It kind of goes back to the documentary experience all those years ago.


Mike Leigh has a very individual approach to creating his films and how he develops the work with the actors.

It was the same on Turner and on Topsy-Turvy. They were real characters who existed. So he’s never really changed it, he has that long rehearsal improvisation period where they come up with the characters and that was the same on Turner, four and a half months, something like that, which I’m not involved with at all but I’m in the background testing the look of the film.


The scene in the Royal Academy showing Turner exhibiting amongst his peers is a wonderful evocation of what it must have been like, and must have been a very complex piece to shoot? 

We were up there for a week… 5 days I think we did it in. It was a big country mansion almost abandoned up near Sheffield and they built the Royal Academy within this big hall there, which had a marvellous marble floor. That’s really important to Mike because then he has the freedom of the whole location. It would have been way outside our budget to build that in a studio. By it being a real location it gives Mike the opportunity to be able to do anything with the actors, coming up and down the stairs and then they’re in a corridor and an anti-room, in this way Mike can explore all possibilities with the actors. A set in a studio doesn’t allow him to do his thing, within a constricted set – a stage, where you walk out the door and the crew and all the equipment is there.

The location was based on a painting in itself, a painting of the time of the Royal Academy with all the artists working on their work. And it showed how they hung their works on those 45-degree sloping walls so that everybody could see the paintings clearly from the floor. And it had a very big domed skyline, which lit the gallery from above. So this location afforded me a gallery from above, over which I hung my lights from a mezzanine level out of shot. It was all very carefully choreographed, built and lit. We talked about it, and prepped it, for ages.

I am a slave to source lighting and, talking about the Royal Academy, when I first saw the painting from the early 1800s, I think it was, I could see clearly the skylight at the top and knew I was going to light it from there, so I was truthful I suppose to the way it actually had been. And I approach everything like that. My approach to lighting goes back to my docs – they taught me to be truthful and honest about where the light came from. I like naturalism and realism; it may be heightened because it isn’t a documentary we’re shooting, so I do use quite a lot of lights really but all of them are there to try and make a natural unobtrusive feel to it.


You don’t want to draw attention to it.

Yeah, that’s right… I try and make it interesting and emotionally correct for what we’re trying to draw out of every scene and that’s not only with Mike but every director I work with – I’m looking for the truth I suppose, the truth within a scene, to photograph it, to heighten that emotion. It’s not just light; it’s light that’s sculpted to lighten shadow, to allow the characters to act in the environment that is right for the scene.


How important is the way you light in how it aids the actors’ performance?

The time is as important as anything. Our schedule on Turner was tight, the budget wasn’t that big. You have to get the work in or you’ll find yourself collecting your bags and leaving! There’s no point diddling around and spending hours and hours of time that the director can be spending with the actors making the scene work on the set. I’m very careful about that in every film I do, whoever I’m working with, to give them the freedom. I light in such a way that I don’t have to change it every five seconds. It’s almost one lighting effect, one lighting plot, does for all with a few tweaks in between. And that hopefully allows the actors to have that time with the director, without me fiddling around. I do get the opportunity of working on all sorts of different films and every film is so different. What you were saying before about the lighting and the environment you create, of course the actors bounce off that because they’re in that set, they’re in that lighting, and if it’s right and it feels proper and emotionally charged, then it affords them the opportunity to give their best, it gives them a comfortable safe place to be, whereas if they’re feeling this isn’t right, it’s too bright or too dark or jagged, or whatever, it’s not the same experience for them. So I think they do benefit greatly from the right lighting.


It’s important that they’re not props

They’ve got a lot to say about how things are staged and rightly so. When Mike observes the actors, when he’s bringing the scene to life, they have their way of playing the scene and Mike observes it and he may interject within it, but he’s looking at the way they are, by them having a real location to work in they can move anywhere, they can do anything and we try and capture that experience. And actually where the camera’s placed – it’s so important where you shoot from, how you shoot it, whether you’re moving the camera or not. We basically  try and move the camera when the actors move – we follow the action. We don’t have big crane shots because we want to do one, it’s driven by what the actors do. It’s quite disciplined like that and drawing the emotion out of the scene, that’s the important thing. The camera, quiet and observational, and if we need to move we do move. And in fact in Mr. Turner the camera’s moving all the time, subtly, but it’s often moving, from the very first shot of a windmill. First, you’re looking at a painting so to speak and then we start moving and that’s how the film continues.


Mike Leigh is a master of tableaux directing.

There’s very little faith these days, I find, in what the actors are doing and letting it play out. It’s a bit like musicals in the old days where they would put the camera back and let them dance and let them sing and they would hold the shot. If you look at some of those early films they just let it happen. The tableaux side of it lends believability to the scene and you’re able to just observe and watch it without a lot of intercutting, which is a cheat really, either because you haven’t got the faith in the shot and you’re afraid you’ll lose the audience unless you bang, bang, bang and cut all around it. That’s not the best way to get the best performances or show the reality of what’s on the screen.


There’s the huge desire to be cutting all the time.

That’s right. We need the shots to shorten it. I mean why not shorten it when you rehearse it; why not cut it to size, and then you’re more free to hold a shot and let it play out. This tableaux thing, I mean, Mike and I both love choreographing a shot, so the actors move in and out, come up to us, move away from us, giving them the freedom, but we just hold the frame, and it’s really engaging for an audience to be able to just look at it, rather like you are a fly on the wall, you’re just observing it and you’re just drawn into it and that’s the kind of filmmaking we love to do.


Obviously with Turner, as Mike Leigh said, it’s about light and you had some amazing source material for your research. So what was that like trying to evoke an artist’s view?

When we were researching the film very early on, Mike had this notion about Turner walking through the paintings – not in a literal way… the way we did it was to evoke the spirit of what Turner was looking at and we went out to many parts of the UK to find these landscapes and seascapes, and we were blessed with the most gorgeous light from the summer of last year.

We often found really interesting skies and sunsets and the sun and the sea and the land were all looking their very best, we were very lucky to capture the film in this wonderful light. If it had been a terrible gloomy grey summer it would have been a different film.

My biggest fear when we were preparing for this had nothing to do with anything technical, it was the weather. I was terrified we’d have a terrible summer. But we went out and it would regularly be grey but it always cleared for us, and the sun was never just a bright white ball but it was a hazy beautiful sun. We were really blessed in that way. We shot all over, in Cornwall, Snowdonia, Suffolk, Norfolk, and we were lucky all over.


But you couldn’t shoot in Margate, which was one of his favourite places.

No because Margate now doesn’t really exist. It’s very sad but where Mrs. Booth’s house was in Margate is now the Turner gallery but a lot of the rest of it is ripped out so we couldn’t shoot there.

We found a small fishing village in Cornwall and we were able to calve out a portion of it and make it our own. Suzie Davis, the designer, did a great job when creating this section of seafront, that includes the house, and we also got the light there. There was this great light in Cornwall that has been attracting painters for centuries right on our doorstep. There’s no CGI or trickery in any of the suns, landscapes or seascapes in the film, they’re all how we found them.


And that’s not what you expect in an age dominated by CGI.

Audiences are very smart and they spot it immediately. You can’t pull the wool over their eyes and CGI bores me. But that was the kind of film we were making, we didn’t need it. All we needed was the light and we caught it, that’s one of the biggest pleasures for me about this film.


And why was the decision made to shoot digitally?

I’d worked digitally before and in fact Mike and I worked on a short film before, for the Olympic Games, that we shot digitally. I’ve had very good experiences on other films, including Bernie, where I had shot digitally. Initially, I yearned to do Turner on film because, like a lot of cameramen, I thought it would give it this more antique texture that would be more in keeping with the 1800s setting. But really that’s bullshit. When I first started testing with the camera, the Arri Alexa, I went down to the south coast and shot seascapes, shot landscapes, and brought this all back to London and realised with digital nothing was being lost. It’s not the tool, it’s how you use it, it’s where you point it.

After I showed mike the tests we explored different looks for the film and gave it this whole Turner colour pallet, we graded the film to reflect the paints and pallets he was using in his day. Its subtle but it’s there. So when people look at it and say its ‘painter’y there’s a lot going on in the background with the colouration of every scene, and the digital gave me more possibilities for that than film would have.

And also when we were in planning the whole infrastructure of using film and processing film was collapsing around us. Labs were closing, the stock was becoming difficult to get. We were embarking on this film and couldn’t in anyway screw up. So we decided to shoot digitally and I’ve never regretted it, none of us have ever regretted it, we just made it our own.


You and Mike Leigh make a formidable team.

I’m always hoping he’ll ask me back! We’ve been working together for 24 years, it’s great. He doesn’t shoot back to back, he’s not prolific. This year he’s on the road doing publicity for Turner and next year he’s doing an national opera for a Gilbert & Sullivan piece, Pirates of Penzance so I’ve got a lot of time in between his films! I love working and with all sorts of different directors and enjoy the experience that affords me. Before Mike’s film I did a film in New York, a spooky Victorian psychosexual drama, so I keep very busy.











One Reply to “Interview: Dick Pope – Cinematographer of ‘Mr Turner’”

  1. Nice interview with Dick Pope, I have seen the film and I have featured some balanced criticism in the new book TURNER TREES, I have links to the old master if your readers are interested, there has been much debate about the artist as he is to feature on a £20 note in 2020 as follows:
    The genius ‘Painter of Light’ JMW Turner is a brilliant choice, and as I informed the Bank of England, I have links to the artist and I also have an ancestor who is the son of a draftsman called Sir Percivall Pott, Queen Victoria’s surgeon who lived at the site of the Bank of England at Threadneedle Street. Our relative, Miss Constance Pott, the pioneering graphic designer and etcher produced a picture titled New Bank of England. There is much more family history in the book TURNER TREES – link to Facebook page can be found below:

    Yours Faithfully,
    Keith Pott Turner

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *